Exactly one year ago, a then-Hewitt senior named Nicki Feldbaum sat where these young women before us sit. She was about to enroll as a first-year student at Swarthmore College. In a recent note to me, Nicki reflected: “Swarthmore College shares many of Hewitt’s core values. At Swarthmore, we have the same commitment to shaping diverse individuals who pursue their passions without losing sight of the bigger picture. And like Hewitt, Swarthmore prides itself on the quality and individuality of instruction.” When Nicki shared with me that she chose Swarthmore because she found it to be “an extension of Hewitt’s ideals,” she was referring to the common commitment of institutions like Hewitt and Swarthmore to what our founder Caroline Hewitt called the “touch of life upon life” in education that can be so profoundly “life-altering” because it involves students working closely with dedicated faculty members and living in community with other students.
How fitting, therefore, that today we welcome the 15th President of Swarthmore College, Valerie Smith, to deliver Hewitt’s 2016 Commencement address. President Smith is a distinguished scholar of African-American literature and culture. Prior to becoming president, she served as the Dean of the College at Princeton University. She has also served as a professor of English and African-American Studies at Princeton and UCLA, as chair of UCLA’s Interdepartmental Program in African-American Studies, and as the founding director of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies. President Smith received her B.A. cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Bates College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. She is the author of more than 40 articles and three books on African-American literature, culture, film, and photography. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Smith comes from a family of educators.
On a more personal note, I wish to add that President Smith is a role model for young women, and a role model for us all. At Princeton, I watched Val work tirelessly to create a more inclusive campus climate, and help students develop into global citizens with a commitment to serving the needs of others. Watching Val in action was like getting a degree in leadership. From Val I learned that, beyond intellectual curiosity and vitality, a leader’s integrity and authenticity are often in and of themselves the most important traits a leader can have. Please join me in extending a warm Hewitt welcome to Swarthmore President Valerie Smith.
Remarks to the Class of 2016
President Valerie Smith, Swarthmore College
Good morning, everyone. To Head of School, Tara Christie Kinsey, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, and staff of the Hewitt School, thank you for the opportunity to be with you this morning. To the class of 2016 – you made it! Congratulations on this momentous occasion! To your parents, family members and loved ones, congratulations to you as well! Your love, support and encouragement have guided the graduates to this milestone achievement. And to the members of the junior class: how wonderful that you are able to share this special day with the seniors. Before you know it, it will be your turn to sit on stage with next year’s speaker. I’m honored to share this occasion with all of you.
I want to take a few moments this morning to talk about ambition. I chose this topic for two reasons. First, as the members of the class of 2016 leave the Hewitt School to begin the next phase of your life, I’m sure people are asking you what you want to do; what you want to be; in other words what are your ambitions? How do you answer them? Second, I think this is an important question for young women in particular to contemplate since the topic of women and ambition can be such a vexed one. We read in the media, in popular literature and in a range of scholarly disciplines – psychology, sociology, gender studies, and so on – that women seem less ambitious than men either because of sexism in the workplace, their professions and in educational institutions, or because they internalize the lowered expectations others impose upon them.
If someone had asked me on the day I graduated from high school in Brooklyn what my ambitions were, I would have said that I planned to go to college – Bates College, to be more specific. But I don’t think I could have come up with more than that. Or if I had come up with more than that I would have been faking it.
Indeed, throughout my career, I’ve been asked about my ambitions: did I always know that I wanted to be a professor, a dean, or a college president. Typically I’d respond by saying something like this: I loved my work as an academic and I worked hard to do it well. When a door would open, I would walk through. So I didn’t go to college knowing that I wanted to earn a Ph.D. I didn’t become a professor knowing I wanted to become a dean. And I didn’t become a dean knowing I wanted to become a college president. But when these possibilities presented themselves, I took advantage of them.
At some level that account is true enough, but it is incomplete and, frankly, it sounds rather passive. It sounds like a story of things happening to me, not an account of my intentional pursuit of a career path. Over time, I began to feel that this account reinforces stereotypes of women’s passivity; it wasn’t teaching me anything else about myself; and isn’t terribly useful to anyone who seriously wanted to learn from my experience. In retrospect, I think that I told the story of my career path this way because I was uncomfortable with traditional ideas of ambition. I think I understood ambition too narrowly – as the ruthless pursuit of one increasingly powerful and visible position after another. I wanted to do work that was meaningful to me and to others and to try to live a balanced life, with room for friendships, family and my other interests, and I don’t think I appreciated that that could be compatible with ambition.
I have come to realize that ambition takes many forms. It does not always look like the dogged pursuit of power. It does not always look like self-promotion at any cost. It can look like a passion for a particular career or desire to make the world more just and equitable. If I reflect on the qualities that guided me, I think that my ambition has expressed itself as curiosity, a willingness to take risks, and a desire to pay it forward, to pass it on. I learned and developed these qualities in my family and in the educational institutions that shaped me.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn. My parents, retired now, were both educators. My father was a biology professor at the Brooklyn Center of Long Island University, and my mother was an elementary school teacher in the New York City public schools. They encouraged in my siblings and me a love of reading and of learning. As we came of age, I think that avid interest in reading, as well as our exposure to the many cultural opportunities New York City affords, and strong liberal arts educations, made my siblings and me curious about unfamiliar ideas, about new experiences, and about people different from ourselves.
I did not arrive at Bates College with an idea about what I would become. But the liberal arts education I received as an English major there was broad and deep enough that it prepared me for the opportunities life offered me. My years at Bates expanded my intellectual horizons and further cultivated the curiosity I had developed as a child. I learned greater discipline, the gift of being able to work collaboratively, and the ability to think and write clearly and analytically. I also came to appreciate the value of being pushed to study subjects that were new to me and that introduced me to unfamiliar ways of knowing – philosophy, religion, psychology, to name but a few.
I recognize the value of my college education in these words from Fareed Zakaria’s 2015 book, In Defense of a Liberal Education:
Whatever job you take, the specific subjects you studied in college will probably prove somewhat irrelevant to the day-to-day work you will do soon after you graduate. . . .What remain constant are the skills you acquire and the methods you learn to approach problems. Given how quickly industries and professions are evolving these days, you will need to apply these skills to new challenges all the time. Learning and re-learning, tooling and retooling are at the heart of the modern economy.
When I was in college I decided to spend my junior year at Oxford University in England, even though I had never been out of the country and indeed, had never even been on a plane. That decision led to the most transformative experience of my college years and has remained one of the defining moments of my life. It taught me that I could quickly adjust to and feel completely at home in a different country; it helped me see that people from different cultures understand and approach the world differently; and it turned me into a traveler – someone who seizes every opportunity to visit new places. Perhaps most importantly, it taught me the value of being willing to take risks – to walk towards the things that frighten me. I would venture to say that each of my accomplishments has required me to choose the unfamiliar over the comfortable – most recently, the decision to leave an institution where I had taught for 24 years to become president of a different one.
Now everything I’ve said about curiosity and risk-taking would not have been possible had I not had mentors who believed in my potential, who gave me candid and honest advice when I needed it, and who modeled the importance of paying it forward. Take for example Laura Scott Taylor, an African American Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the class of 1937 at Oberlin College. The beneficiary of an outstanding education, she made it her life’s work to offer better educations to students in underserved communities. She founded the elementary school I attended when she realized that the public schools in our section of Brooklyn – Bedford-Stuyvesant before it was fashionable – were not providing children with a decent education. As she said in a 1967 interview: "There is something radically wrong with the public school system if our kids can't read."
A brilliant, hard-working, dignified, and elegant woman and one of my earliest mentors, Laura Taylor served as its unsalaried principal from 1960-1992. Although it closed sometime in the early 2000s after Mrs. Taylor passed away, the school improved the life chances of generations of students, producing graduates who went on to pursue careers in all walks of life: medicine, law, the arts, education, civil service, and so on.
Ruth Simmons, former vice-Provost at Princeton University, former president of Smith College, and former president of Brown University, the first, and so far only African American president of an Ivy League university has also been a mentor to me and to many other college and university presidents around the country. She did not rest on her own successes but has committed to helping others, whatever their backgrounds, to become highly effective leaders in higher education. From mentors like Laura Taylor and Ruth Simmons, I have learned that my ambition does not stop with my own goals. I have a duty and a responsibility to help others who are underrepresented in higher education and other professions to achieve their highest potential.
These qualities of curiosity, a willingness to take risks – to walk towards things that I fear – and a desire to pay it forward have all factored into any professional success I enjoy. These may not be the single-minded pursuit of a goal, but they are not passive. They are active expressions of my ambition. I invite the members of the graduating class to reflect on your own experience to see what it tells you about your ambition. There is more than one way to be ambitious, successful, accomplished. As you move into and through the next stage of your life, develop the habit of making time for reflection. Find a spot on your campus where you can be alone with your thoughts. It might be a nook in the library or in the student center or in an academic building. It might be in your own room. Or you might find that like me, you do your best thinking when you’re walking. But use that time alone for reflection and contemplation as you discover your authentic self and what kind of person you want to be.
In late April I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to see Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s highly-acclaimed musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. As I’m sure many of you know, this show that depicts the founders of our democracy as young, smart, energetic, dynamic, racially and socioeconomically diverse, sometimes brash – perhaps a little like the members of the graduating class? These characters are depicted as being at once awed and intoxicated with the project of building a new nation. Much of the score seeks to capture the sense of optimism and hope of that moment. And so it seems only right to leave you with one of those lines as you find yourself in your own moment of anticipation, optimism, and awe. But which one? At first I thought I wanted to encourage you by quoting Hamilton’s refrain, delivered with the intensity of a syncopated staccato: “I am not throwing away my shot.” Or I could leave you with the Schuyler sisters’ refrain: “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now.” When the sisters, Eliza, who becomes Hamilton’s wife and Angelica, who became his sister-in-law, sing this line they draw us into its capacious sense of possibility, with the circularity of the repeated “around” and the extended linearity of the final phrase: “How lucky we are to be alive right now.”
But I decided instead to leave you with the haunting refrain that George Washington sings first and other characters pick up later: “History has its eyes on you.” Here’s what I love about that line. It moves in two directions. It reminds us that our lives – your lives – are the fulfillment of the dreams and sacrifices of previous generations. The past – your literal and metaphorical foreparents had their eyes on you before you were born. You inspired them and gave them hope. But this line also reminds us that our lives – your lives – are unfolding in what, for the future, will be its history. How will you contribute to that history? How will future generations know you? What are your ambitions? History has its eyes on every one of you.